ERIN, WIS. — Down the pretty green County Q Road West, beyond the silos and the barns, beyond the pick-your-own-strawberries place, beyond the every-so-often houses and the Little Red Schoolhouse and the gumdrop town of Colgate, and beyond the beautiful hay bales in the trucks, the deer warning sign and the obligatory mailbox with a Green Bay Packers “G” insignia on it, here’s the gargantuan underdog.
It’s 7,741 yards long out here. It’s on a vast 652 acres, dwarfing the golf-course norm. It’s 37 miles northwest of Milwaukee, after the interstate signs start hinting about Fond du Lac and the radio holds a hot-as-June conversation about Aaron Rodgers’s contract.
Hell, it’s 11 years old or, in golf history, a blip of a blip of a blip.
Two decades ago, it was Earl and Bernice Millikin’s cattle farm, with their outstanding Charolais that once numbered 450 and once, during the 1970s, boasted Adonis, Earl’s favorite bull. This week, somehow, it’s the site of the 117th U.S. Open after a vivid whoosh of a history — if two decades can count as a history — told lately in Gary D’Amato’s smashing seven-part series in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
You know the U.S. Open, that venerable matter that likes to frequent hangouts such as Pebble Beach (founded 1919), Pinehurst (1907) or last year’s stop in Pennsylvania at Oakmont (1903). Now it’s at a place where Jeff Millikin tells of his parents in a telephone interview and says, “We grazed cattle on that land,” and, “Dad would have the whole herd calved by the first of June,” and, “We had one of the top 10 herds [quality-wise] in the nation.”
Regarding Adonis, whom Earl Millikin would show at state fairs, Jeff Millikin said, “My dad would walk up to him in the pasture and scratch his back.”
His dad also surmised, from the get-go of early ownership in the 1960s, that the whole swath did suggest the idea of a swell golf course. The glaciers had done such an artful job. The land rolled. “A lot of golf courses are manufactured,” Jeff Millikin said. “This one is all natural.” For years, most everyone who got to set eyes upon it, from United States Golf Association officials to the famed Wisconsinite Steve Stricker, saw similarly, felt wowed and often remarked that, without the presence of any nearby sea, it conjured the seaside Shinnecock Hills, the Long Island mainstay founded in 1891 and plotting its turn as 2018 U.S. Open host.
Human vision, human frailty and human architectural squabbling marked Erin Hills’ whiplash path from then to this turn as the first Central time zone course in 14 years to stage a U.S. Open. Earl Millikin died in 1996. Bernice Millikin later sold the farm. Bob Lang, a card and calendar magnate from Wisconsin, bought it and nursed it and loved it and envisioned it over and over. But, as D’Amato’s account details, he loved it too much, overspent on it, became indebted because of it and had to sell it, eventually in 2009 to investment strategist and Milwaukee magnate Andy Ziegler. That came three years after a visionary golf nut named Steve Trattner, who discovered the land and helped Lang choose the course architects, wound up at Waupun Correctional Institution northwest of here, convicted of murdering his wife when she sought a divorce in 2006.
Ziegler’s careful stewardship carried the course through one crescendo, the U.S. Amateur of 2011, and by that time, Erin Hills had undergone a rescue of its fescue and all else, reflected in the comments of English golfer Jack Senior, who played the links in that Amateur and said, “This is like being at home.”
Already, so many had been so impressed with the handiwork of the glaciers that, upon announcing of this underdog as the surprise site for 2017 at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, USGA championship committee chairman Tom O’Toole said, “Many of you know Erin is a special place, a public golf course, predominantly fine fescue grasses, although bent grass putting greens, the course is very open and natural and has much topographical movement.”
Now, here’s Erin’s week, with its temperatures dabbling around 90 and its hydration stations all set up and pouring. Wisconsin native Andy North, the golf commentator who himself once won two U.S. Opens (1978, 1985), cited “a different type of Open setup” and said, “Is it right? Is it wrong? I don’t know.”
It’s beyond the wider-than-normal Open fairways and the absence of classic Open rough around the greens, although North did cite those. It’s the unanimity of the unfamiliarity. “Well, I think that the one thing that is awkward coming here for the first time is that no one really has any idea what to expect,” North said. “Will the winning score be 4 over? Will the winning score be about 20 under? No one has an idea. That’s not just the players, but the staff trying to set up the golf course.”
The whole funky story of it, even the part about the course being closed since Oct. 2, plays even into how one might play. “I think that’s one of the surprises when it was announced, that here’s a golf course that’s so new,” North said. “And I’ve always felt like such a big part of the championship is the history that goes with it. To go to Oakmont and know that these guys won there before, that Arnold did that, and Johnny Miller shot this score, that’s really neat for the player. And then you actually have some idea what it takes to win there. Ideally I tried really hard to figure out the score I needed to shoot when I came to one of these events. And then you try to fit your game plan around trying to get that score at the end of the week. When you don’t have any idea, it makes it much more difficult.”
That, and one more thing: “To bring it to this point,” Jeff Millikin said, “it’s quite amazing.”